Like a lot of people, I love my dogs, and I would be so sad if I had to be away from them for a long time. That’s why I use the Family Pet Center at Cincinnati Children’s with my patients as much as I can.
I am a child life specialist and I work with patients on the inpatient bone marrow transplant unit in the Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute. My job as a member of the care team involves helping patients and their families by promoting play, and providing educational, emotional and psychosocial support. One of the supports child life specialists can offer at Cincinnati Children’s is family pet visits.
Extended Care Away from Home
The patients on the unit often are here for long-term hospitalization. That means they’re away from home, school, siblings, friends and also their pets.
Cincinnati Children’s first opened the CancerFree KIDS & Impact 100 Family Pet Center in 2013. It features an outside, grassy space and enclosed bus shelter-type structure that can be heated on chilly days. With medical staff approval, families of patients who stay at the hospital five days or longer can arrange to bring their four-legged friends for a visit with a hospitalized child. Both dogs and cats can make visits to the center.
How I Use the Family Pet Center with my Patients
I’ve used the Family Pet Center with patients ever since it opened. I love seeing how happy it makes kids to spend time with their pet. It takes quite a bit of effort to make these visits happen, but it’s always worth it.
These are some ways that I’ve used the Family Pet Center with my patients and their families:
- Weekly visits with the family pet. One of my patients has been having visits every Wednesday for several months now. She picks out a special outfit to wear on the day of her pet’s visit. Her mom drives their family dog two hours from home to get to the hospital.
- A visit with a volunteer therapy dog. If a child doesn’t have a pet of their own, or their pet is too far to come for a visit, we sometimes arrange a visit with a volunteer therapy dog through our volunteer dog coordinator.
- To help work on therapy goals. Occupational and physical therapists sometimes involve the pet visit as a part of therapy. For example, seeing their pet can be a motivation for a child to walk part or all of the way to the family pet appointment.
- To celebrate special occasions. I’ve held Easter egg hunts in the Family Pet Center to bring a family together outdoors with their pet and allow them to celebrate a special holiday together.
- End-of-life opportunities. I’ve arranged many visits to the Family Pet Center to allow a patient to have their last experience outdoors. One of these took place during COVID-19 visiting restrictions, when the patient wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see his sibling. I was able to schedule a visit to the Family Pet Center with the patient, his family and a therapy dog. It was incredibly special for everyone.
- Legacy building and memory making. I sometimes take a camera with me and document these visits for families, then print the pictures or email them to the family.
The Family Pet Center’s Effect on Families
Research shows that when a patient has access to their own pet or a therapy dog, it decreases stress and lowers heart rate, creating a relaxing experience. Every time I use the Family Pet Center, I can see the difference it makes on a child’s psychosocial, emotional and mental health and well-being. It’s pretty remarkable.
What I hear over and over again from families is gratitude and appreciation. They are so thankful we’re able to make these visits happen. They provide something for patients to look forward to, and to talk about afterward.
On pet visit days, my patients are so motivated to get ready and to go outside and see their pet. Then they come back and tell the rest of the staff about their visit, sharing pictures and stories: “I got to see Jo Jo today!” “Look at Olivia, look how cute she is! She let me tickle her belly the whole time.” It’s a bright spot for the whole family.
The center also provides a safe, private environment for children who can’t be around others. Often these visits are an opportunity for kids to get outside, get some fresh air, and have sunshine on their face for the first time in a long time.
Treating the Whole Child
I’m so glad that Cincinnati Children’s is able to offer family pet visits to our patients, from the perspective of both a child life specialist and a fellow dog lover.
From the personal side of things, I know how much pets can mean to a family. And from the professional side, it’s notable that Cincinnati Children’s is not just looking at a child’s medical condition. Rather, we’re looking at the child as a whole and respecting how important home life is by providing the opportunity to bring their furry friend to the hospital. It’s an honor as a child life specialist to be the catalyst to help make that happen for patients and families.
Pictured at top: Cincinnati Children’s patient Heather enjoys a visit from her family’s dog George.
The family pet center is made possible by a grant awarded from Impact 100 to CancerFree KIDS.